AFCON 2017: 7 stars to keep tabs on in Gabon
The New Year celebrations might be over for now but for many lovers of the beautiful game around the globe, the 31st edition of the African Cup of Nations which kicks off this Saturday provides an equal mix of excitement to celebrate deep into 2017.
This year’s tournament might not be one of the star-studded competitions as many African countries continue to rebuild after a decade of producing most of the greatest footballers to have graced the world over the last 10 years.
That said, here is a list of seven African stars that should give you renewed hope ahead of the tournament in Gabon. Some may flourish while others may flounder at the biggest football competition on the continent --- the B&FT picks out 7 players to keep tabs on in Gabon.
Mario Lemina, Juventus (Gabon)
Host Gabon may still not be considered as one of the heavy weights in African football, however with players like Mario Lemina, any opponent coming up against the Gabonese should do well to stop the likes of Lemina from operating effectively from central midfield where he thrives best.
It is quite unfortunate that he finds himself at Italian giants Juventus where he is limited to little play time. Hence little is known of him. But that could play to Lemina’s advantage since there wouldn’t be too much pressure on his shoulders.
Aged 23, he is a strong, hard working right-footed midfielder with the ability to distribute the ball effectively. Lemina is also a box-to-box player who is mostly deployed in the centre, owing to his ability to breakdown opponent’s play and initiate attacking play after winning possession.
He is very versatile, he can play as a winger, full back or a wing-back and will be one of the star names to look out for at the tournament.
Serge Aurier/PSG (Ivory Coast)
Considered as one of the best at his trade, Aurier is an embodiment of a modern full-back.
There are few in the game with the same energy levels as the young Ivorian, perhaps, this explains why he is always not too far from controversies, on and off the pitch. That aside, on the field of play, Aurier is one of the most effective right-backs in the world today.
His ability to turn games on their heads as a defender is incredible. He likes to go forward which allows him to get into good crossing positions. Coupled with that, he is also a good dribbler, tackler, and a passer with good pace.
The 24-year-old defender will be very crucial to the defending champions, and should the Ivory Coast have a successful tournament, much will be dependent on the Paris Saint Germain star.
Sofiane Boufal/Southampton (Morocco)
The 23-year-old Moroccan before his record move to Southampton in England last summer, was regarded as one of the best attacking midfielders in the French Ligue 1.
Though yet to fully adapt to the intrigues of the English game, the few times that Boufal have had a chance in the Saints shirt he has proved his worth.
Not much is known about Boufal on the continent, yet that could still be to his advantage as there wouldn’t be too much pressure on him. As he has shown at Southampton so far, he is capable of either taking on opponents or giving defence splitting passes with an equally good eye for goal.
It is unfortunate that Boufal finds himself in a Moroccan team that is not too blessed with talents, but as seen before, players with great technical ability as Boufal are capable of taking competitions by surprise.
Andre Ayew/West Ham United (Ghana)
Ghana may be going to the 2017 AFCON with a fairly depleted squad but Andre Ayew’s recovery in time to be included for the tournament should give Ghanaians confidence that the Black Stars could end their 35-year wait for a 5th African Cup.
With Captain Asamoah Gyan not expected to play a very significant role at the competition, Andre Ayew’s leadership could do the trick for the less star-studded Black Stars squad.
However, Ayew’s fitness level could in question. He has managed only 6 games for West Ham in the league thus far. That said, Ayew’s experience, hard work and leadership could make the Black Stars of Ghana one of the most difficult teams to beat in Gabon.
Sadio Mane/Liverpool (Senegal)
Arguably the most in-form African footballer at the moment, Mane’s big money move to Liverpool has so far been a big success. No wonder most Liverpool fans and football pundits feel his departure for the AFCON could deal a big blow to Liverpool’s premier league title charge.
Expect Senegal to have a very good tournament should Mane be able to replicate his club form for the Senegalese national team.
The play maker, attacker and winger is an embodiment of skill, trickery and pace and has been at the end of every positive thing for his club who are putting up a fierce fight for the English league.
Though considered as one of the favourites for the AFCON title, Senegal has a negative tag of being one of perennial underachievers in Africa. The football world will surely be watching to see if Sadio Mane has any answers!
Pierre Emerick Aubameyang/Borussia Dortmund (Gabon)
With one of the best goal scoring rate per game in football today, the 2015 African Best Player of the Year has proven to be a big game player and could lead the host to their first ever AFCON medal.
His explores in the German Bundesliga this season and the previous one are breath-taking. The Gabonese striker scored a total of 39 goals from 45 appearances in all competitions last season. 25 of the goals came from 29 league games while the rest were scored in cup competitions.
He is one of the reasons why Gabon is seen as one of the teams to beat at the competition.
Riyad Mahrez/Leicester City (Algeria)
Not many saw it coming but Mahrez role in Leicester City’s historic title winning campaign can be compared to Lionel Messi’s role at Barcelona or Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid. The Algerian, 26 years, was at the heart of everything for Leicester City and deservedly the league’s best footballer last season.
Mahrez who became the first African footballer to win the EPL best player of the year scored 17 goals with 11 assists.
Currently, the best African footballer and one of the top 10 best players in the world, Mahrez is yet to have a successful career with the Algerian national team. This explains why many believe this year's AFCON could be his if he is to have his name inked as one of the continent’s greatest.